Piano Concerto No. 2
Sviatoslav Richter, Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Erich Leinsdorf, cond.)
The Piano Glows Here
This is like John Barrymore playing Hamlet—an auspicious pairing of genius performer and masterpiece. Written between 1878 and 1881, the Piano Concerto No. 2 is Brahms's most formidable offering for piano and orchestra, a dense work in which elements of symphonic form are utilized to fulfill the virtuoso-showcase imperatives of the concerto. It's a full meal of a piece, and Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter (1915–1997), one of the most agile, electrifying pianists of his day, devours it. This recording, which was made during his first tour of the U.S. in 1960, takes Brahms to deeply emotional places.
Brahms gives each of the four movements the character of a Romantic-era symphony—the second is a tense scherzo (marked "allegro appassionato"), the third a doleful andante. There are fleet-fingered, technically demanding passages for the soloist—at times in the first two movements, Richter sounds like he's shoving the strings to the sidelines, insisting on center stage. When he gets there, he earns the attention by rattling out low-register chords, or dashing off commanding technical passages, including several rollicking descending lines that feel like a tumble down a long flight of stairs.
Richter's playing traverses extremes of sound. He's able to bring a superhuman force to the crescendos and executes jarring peaks that bring the first movement to a torrid close. But these heated flashes are followed almost immediately by calmer atmospheres, and whenever Brahms calls for a light touch, Richter provides it, insinuating himself into the fabric of the ensemble. The quieter moments (particularly those in the astoundingly serene third movement) showcase another Richter signature—the pearly, glowing "resonance" he coaxes from the piano. Even on this vintage live recording, that rare quality shines through.
Released: 1961, RCA
Key Tracks: First movement (Allegro Non Troppo); third movement (Andante).
Catalog Choice: The Four Symphonies, NDR Symphony (Gunther Wand, cond.)
Next Stop: Franz Liszt: Two Piano Concertos, Piano Sonata, Sviatoslav Richter, London Symphony Orchestra (Kiril Dondrashin, cond.)
After That: Ludwig van Beethoven: The Late Sonatas, Richard Goode.
Book Pages: 113–114